When college and university revenues decline and budgets are slashed, training and development is frequently the first item on the chopping block. Not so in the Student Affairs division at Duke University. Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, Caroline Nisbet, gave her staff the opportunity to decide where to cut. Nisbet quickly acceded to staff requests to keep professional development coaching in the budget, recognizing that the value of coaching reached far beyond the individuals concerned: The entire Student Affairs division benefited from the coaching her staff received.
Management coaching is a relatively new phenomenon in academia, but it has a long history in corporate America. According to a 2008 article in Fast Company, coaching is now a billion‐dollar industry, with a significant percentage of chief executive officers and senior executives taking advantage of coaching services.
What is good for corporate senior executives is just as good for leaders in academia. But the word “coaching” has too frequently been associated with performance deficiencies. Writing in the Harvard Management Update in January 2007, Lauren Keller Johnson acknowledged there used to be a stigma attached to coaching, but claims that the stigma has largely disappeared. She explains that “coaching is now used largely to expand a talented individual’s repertoire of skills, and working with a coach has even become something of a status symbol.”
Coaching Comes of Age in Academia
Academia may have been a “late adapter” of coaching, but that is about to change, thanks in part to an economic situation requiring significant modifications in how universities are managed.
As work forces contract, some managers are finding themselves in charge of areas with which they have little familiarity. Other individuals must demonstrate leadership and strategic planning skills they did not learn in graduate school. Staff layoffs are causing significant management challenges.
Many colleges and universities rely on time‐tested ways of doing business. In 2009, however, leaders need to think creatively about everything from doing more and better with less, to finding non‐financial means to reward and motivate staff members. No longer is it acceptable to say “we’ve always done it that way.” For many long‐time directors and vice presidents, the new order will create discomfort and uncertainty.
Coaching provides the opportunity to help managers adapt to very different work environments by employing their strengths in the most effective ways and building their capacities to move successfully into a new era. The strategic use of coaching can be particularly effective in student affairs given its culture of assessment. Now is the time to apply learning outcomes to staff as well as students.
What is Coaching?
The types of coaching most frequently used in the academic workplace fall into five categories: management, professional development, performance improvement, transition, and leadership development. Coaching is, by definition, holistic, and recognizes that factors outside of the work environment affect an individual’s performance. As a result, coaches may employ many different types of coaching, including life coaching.
Stephanie Helms, director of assessment and professional development programs in student affairs at Duke University, speaks to the value of this holistic approach: “As people we are not compartmentalized. We don’t stop being parents, significant others, or caregivers when we arrive at the workplace.” She adds, “Having the opportunity to form a relationship with someone who is skilled at assisting with navigating each role, honing skills and defining success, cannot be underestimated.”
Though coaching styles and purpose may differ, any coaching assignment has three common elements: • a one‐on‐one relationship, • a goal and action orientation, and • a commitment to the process on the part of both client and coach.
The first step in developing a successful coaching relationship is to determine the goals of the assignment. The client is in the “driver’s seat” and needs to clearly identify issues, challenges, and opportunities, and discuss what new behaviors to explore or employ. This is where trust comes into play—the client must feel comfortable sharing situations he or she has not handled well, or in which he or she feels less confident, in addition to helping the coach become acquainted with his or her strengths. Further, the client must be open to observations, critique, and feedback that may conflict with his or her self-image.
The coach can only help if the client has provided sufficient information about his or her situation and is open to different interpretations and perspectives. Chandlee Bryan, president of Best Fit Forward, believes that a key value of good coaching is the ability to provide an independent assessment of the client’s situation while providing support for behavior change when necessary.
Ongoing coaching relationships provide opportunities for staff members to debrief situations with their coaches as they occur. This immediacy is enormously beneficial for clients and provides a professional sounding board for potential courses of action. A good coach will help a client clarify options, widen perspectives, and find solutions.
Find the Right Coach
Identifying and selecting an appropriate coach is much harder than it might seem. Anyone can hang out a shingle and proclaim a willingness to provide coaching services, and there are no universally respected qualification for coaches. Complicating matters is the breadth of the field—a life coach may be totally ineffective as an executive coach and vice versa.
Catherine Fitzgerald, an experienced executive coach, puts her finger on the problem of finding the right person: “The (coaching) field emerged outside of academic institutions, and there isn’t a solid base of theory and research on which coaches can agree.”
The coach search should concentrate first on finding someone with the ability to understand the client’s needs and environment from a first‐hand perspective. Ideally, the coach for a senior student affairs officer would be someone with high‐level administrative experience in academia.
Some clients prefer coaches who have actually walked in their professional “shoes,” but unless the coaching need is related to the subject matter of individuals’ professions, that is usually unnecessary. More important for professional development coaching is that coaches have keen appreciation for the problems and solutions associated with managing staff. Other prerequisites for strong coaches include listening well and helping clients solve their own problems using a wide variety of techniques.
Also, some clients assume that it is best to find coaches who closely resemble them, but there are no data to support the the conclusion that this is necessary for success. Helms agrees: “My coach does not share my race or gender. I have never found my coach to be ineffective based upon our cultural differences. In fact, they complement each other.”
As with any hiring situation, once a client has determined that the coach has the basic requirements, it comes down to fit. No coaching arrangement will work without mutual trust and good chemistry.
Some coaches push clients very hard to make changes, such as becoming more assertive or improving presentation skills. In these cases, the coach will often assign “homework” in between meetings. If a client does not want to have his or her feet held to the fire, it is important to make sure the coach is willing to employ a less directive style.
In cases of performance management coaching, the client’s supervisor may want the final say regarding the coach who is hired, and he or she will also want to be involved in setting clear expectations and timelines for observable change. Yet it would be counter‐productive for a manager to force a coach on an employee, if either party was convinced that coaching would not succeed. Before signing on the dotted line, clients will want to ensure that fees and logistical arrangements meet their criteria.
Logistical Issues and Costs
The length of a coaching assignment is typically six to12 months. It could be shorter if coaching is part of a performance improvement plan that requires that the staff member demonstrate a change in behavior by a certain date. The duration, frequency, and length of a coaching relationship are typically at the discretion of the client and are determined with budget issues in mind. Some managers prefer longer meetings every couple of weeks. Others enjoy the benefit of being able to pick up the phone to debrief situations as they arise. Of critical importance is the coach’s ability to get to know the client and his or her issues and goals very well because coaching is contextual. At the minimum, a two‐hour face‐to‐face meeting at the start of the coaching process is usually required. Follow-up meetings can take place by telephone if that method meets the needs of both parties.
The January 2007 Harvard Management Update reported that a six‐month arrangement with a highly qualified, highly experienced coach can cost between $15,000 and $30,000. Fortunately, coaches who work with academic leaders and managers have lower fee structures.
Nisbet reports that coaching fees for Duke University student affairs staff members typically range from $150 to $350. A discount of 10 to 15 percent can often be arranged if several staff members are working with the same coach or coaching company. Although fees are often quoted at an hourly rate, it may be possible to hire coaches on retainer for a certain period, during which time a staff member has access to the coach on an as‐needed basis.
Gain a Return on Investment
In 2008, Fast Company partnered with Brian Underhill of Coach Source to conduct a research project about coaching with 48 companies. The results of the survey attest to the value of coaching: 63 percent of the responding organizations reported that they planned to increase their use of coaching over the next five years, and 92 percent of the 86 leaders being coached said they expected to use a coach again.
Effective coaching can be valuable to organizations and individuals, but clear expectations about the scope of assignments and coaching styles are keys to success. Beyond agreed-upon expectations, the client must be committed to the process and be willing to leave his or her comfort zone. Both coach and client need to recognize that there are no one‐size‐fits‐all solutions, and there may be some trial and error involved in developing strategies. Openness, trust, and a willingness to hear and share observations are critical to successful coaching relationships.
It is important to note that coaching is not appropriate for all situations. If a manager or director has a particular skill deficiency, training may be more effective. Coaching is better suited to situations that are unique to the client, or where the ability to understand other “players” or the environment is important. No laws govern coaching confidentiality, and the person paying the bills may expect reports from either the coach or the client to validate the return on investment. The required scope of the report may be clearly articulated in the case of performance improvement coaching, or take the form of a loose request for occasional updates. When updates are voluntary, it is helpful for the coach and client to agree on what will be shared so that a strong sense of trust remains. A report requirement is often perceived negatively by employees, but for the client receiving professional development coaching, feedback to a manager provides an excellent opportunity to talk about career goals, professional development, and management expectations. The likelihood that an investment in coaching will continue is directly linked to the payer’s perception of value.
A Win-Win Solution
Up to 90 percent of a student affairs budget is devoted to employee salary and benefits. In addition, turnover, poor morale, and performance issues all have significant time and cost implications. It makes good economic sense, therefore, to address problems before they arise.
Anecdotal information in academia indicates that coaching is a win‐win for employees and their institutions. Staff members respond well to suggestions for change that take into consideration their styles, backgrounds, and environments. Their supervisors appreciate that results are immediate and targeted to areas that most benefit individual employees’ performance. During times of significant change, coaching has the advantage of timeliness and focus.
Student affairs is ideally situated to lead the way in developing coaching as a effective training method for its employees. In the process, it will benefit from a workforce that is skilled, motivated, and ready to accept the challenges of a new era in academia.
Sheila Curran is a professional coach, specializing in academia. She holds the highest qualification in human resources, the SPHR, and is the former executive director of the Duke University Career Center. She held a similar position at Brown University before starting Curran Career Consulting in 2008. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Example of a Coaching Assignment
Name: Stephanie Helms, EdD, Director, Assessment & Professional Development Programs Duke University, Division of Student Affairs
Type of coaching received? Professional development
When did the coaching relationship start? October 2007
How often do you receive coaching? Once a month, with occasional homework assignments
How long are the sessions? 45 to 60 minutes
What have you learned from coaching? I have strengthened my skills to be strategic in planning and deliberate in my actions. The opportunity to process every step from inception to implementation away from my work environment has been incredibly helpful.
What are the advantages of coaching versus other forms of professional development? Coaching is uniquely designed for the individual. It allows the ability to measure growth and development over time against pre‐identified variables.
What qualifications or experience does the coach have that make the individual particularly useful to you? I appreciate the coach being skilled in listening and demonstrating appreciative inquiry—asking the right questions. Having an understanding of the environments and cultures I need to explore is essential.
Would you recommend coaching to your peers? I would absolutely recommend coaching to my peers, and I have. Coaching has helped me be more reflective about experiences, as opposed to complaining or feeling stuck .
Why is this a good use of your budget? Coaching provides a return on investment that is immeasurable because it has more of a direct impact than a traditional experience. It is individually designed and tailored to fit the needs of one person.
Types of Coaching Examples
Management A manager of residential life is promoted to an assistant vice president position, in which he supervises former colleagues. His coach helps him navigate difficult human resource issues while becoming a sounding board for his work in a new area: strategic planning.
Professional Development A new career center director is hired from the corporate world. A coach works with her to capitalize on the strengths and knowledge she brings to the position, while helping her to adapt to the academic world.
Performance Improvement The director of student activities has developed wonderful relationships with students, but has been unable to develop a strong and competent staff. Working with a coach is part of a formal performance improvement plan.
Transition A 55-year-old director of judicial affairs has volunteered to take “early retirement” to save money for the department, yet she still needs to work. A coach is hired to help the director transition to a new position and life outside academia.
Leadership Development A mid-level manager is identified as someone with significant growth potential. She works with a coach to identify and address competence gaps and ensure a smooth transition to a higher-level position.
Advantages of Coaching over Other Forms of Training
• Tailored to an individual’s personal needs and context
• Focused on client’s goals
• On‐going and flexible
• Addresses situations as they arise
• Requires no travel
• Delivers proven return on investment
Questions to Address when Choosing a Coach
• Does the coach have a clear idea of how to achieve results through coaching?
• Does the coach have the required technical skill set (e.g., experience in management or human resources)? • Does the coach have the right personal characteristics (e.g., ability to establish rapport, trustworthiness, willingness to listen)?
• Does the coach have an understanding of the client’s work and organizational culture?
• Does the coach have a strong track record in coaching?
• Can the coach be available when needed and accommodate preferences for on‐site, in‐person, or telephone coaching?
• Are the coach’s fees within the budget for coaching?
Published in the NASPA Leadership Exchange magazine, Summer 2009 edition.